I started reaching for the door handle but stopped when Aaliyah hit the doorbell. Though I no longer resided here, I had difficulty deciding whether walking in unannounced or ringing the bell was a better course of action. Waiting for invitation was more polite, but how would my parents feel about their own son waiting at the door so soon after moving out? I was still debating what was right when mother opened the door. Before either of us could speak, Aaliyah jumped forward, hugged her, and yelled “Rachel!” Mother laughed as she knelt down to hug Aaliyah. Then she stood and hugged me at the door. As I returned her embrace, I couldn’t help noticing that father was standing behind her, smiling his gentle smile. Seeing him home before four on a weekday was such a rarity that I suddenly wondered if Aaliyah and I were imposing on him to have arranged for a lunch instead of dinner. If so, he didn’t seem remotely displeased, embracing me a moment after mother released me. Then he lifted Aaliyah up, hugged her, and carried her in one arm back to the living room. I was surprised that I couldn’t smell mother’s delicious cooking, since her preparations generally started well before we ate.
Mother and I followed father into the living room where he sat, placing Aaliyah on his lap. As I sat next to mother, father asked Aaliyah “Has my son been treating you well?” She smiled, nodded, and said, “Uh huh!” Then she paused and looked thoughtful as she explained “Well… I guess he was a bit resistant to a haircut earlier. You should have seen his hair! It was all like…” She started moving her hands around her head, demonstrating how long my hair was. “I really don’t feel my hair was quite that bad, but I truly did need the haircut. Aaliyah has great potential as a stylist. She does Emma’s hair as well.” Mother gaped and stared at me. I smiled as Aaliyah started elaborating on how fun Emma’s hair was to style with the countless color options. Father laughed and said, “You did a wonderful job on my son’s hair. You’ll have to tell me if you ever set up shop somewhere.” Bouncing on his leg, Aaliyah replied “James has a hair studio at his house! I’ll gladly give you haircuts too if you want! I live just across the park from him, so coming over isn’t a problem!” Father looked surprised and said, “I can’t recall seeing a hair studio when I was given the tour, but in my defense, that place is rather large.”
“Well,” I started, “I’ve been finding out over the past week that there are a number of hidden rooms in the house. The hair studio happens to be one of them.” Aaliyah then said, “We were having a ghost house one night! It was sooo cool! We saw something. Don’t know what, but there was SOMETHING there.” I felt a sudden bout of panic. If my parents delved into the supernatural world, they could be in danger. My panic was quickly alleviated after my father chuckled and said, “I bet you did. Hard not to find something in the dark with a house that big.” Mother then asked “Did you have Jarod help you prepare for the hunt?” Before a response came to mind, Aaliyah said, “Jarod was all for the idea, but the evil twins were big party poopers. They wouldn’t come join us. They DID go swimming with us in the pond though! It was so much fun, and the statues there are so pretty! Have you seen the gardens? Emma makes the gardens look sooo beautiful! I’m so glad that James moved nearby. When daddy comes back, I’ll have so many adventures to tell him about!” I could easily tell by their faces that my parents were as captivated by Aaliyah’s adorable nature as I was. She managed to tell them the truth about some things we did without ever making them believe how extraordinary the events truly were.”
“I’m glad you’re having such a wonderful time,” said mother, “I look forward to seeing Ai and Mai again someday. Those two are quite the cooks and very charming ladies. Why do you call them ‘evil’, Aaliyah?” Her big, blue eyes looked extremely excited as she said, “Because they ARE evil. They constantly try to steal time from James and me. Then they beat up James off and on for fun!” Father spoke up, commenting “After all those lessons James took, I would have thought he could protect himself from two petite girls.” Aaliyah nodded before saying, “He does! It was AH-MAY-ZING! They were all like pow, pow, pow, and he was all like dodge, dip, block, block, duck, dive, block!” She had jumped out of father’s lap to act out what she was saying, which seemed like an unbelievable display, mostly due to the shocking display of agility she demonstrated. I really doubted I could pull off half the acrobatics she did, and I was certain that I couldn’t do any of them and look remotely cute as she did. “Well, I’m glad that the girls are helping James get some exercise, since he’s no longer on a track team,” said mother. There was just something about Aaliyah that allowed her to do miraculous things without ever breaking her child-like demeanor. As she looked at me, I had to wonder if part of her talent was hidden in that enormous grin which tended to dwell on her face more often than not. I couldn’t imagine anyone looking at that smile without feeling an urge to hug the tiny girl.
“Mother, do you think I could commission a painting from you?” I asked on a whim. She looked surprised. “You know I wouldn’t charge you for a painting, right?” she asked. I smiled and confided “The picture won’t be for me, so I would prefer to pay for your time. I would like you to paint Aaliyah for her father. I’m sure Ai and Mai’s parents were thrilled with the painting you did of them a while back, so I can’t help feeling that Chad would like one as well, perhaps wearing the tiara from her birthday.” Father smiled and said, “I can’t imagine a parent who wouldn’t love to see their child immortalized by your mother, but are you planning on giving gifts to all of your clients?” I nodded and told him “I’m thinking customer appreciation for repeat clients would be a nice gesture. Though I don’t plan on doing anything quite so grand for most, Chad is quite the wonderful client, and babysitting Aaliyah is always a pleasure.” Aaliyah piped up and said, “Plus, he could get tax write offs on the gifts, since they’re business expenses!” I looked at Aaliyah and wondered if mother could truly capture that enthusiasm for life in a painting. Mother was an extraordinary painter, but truly capturing Aaliyah would make the painting a masterpiece worthy of the Louvre.
I jumped when the doorbell rang, not expecting my parents to have more visitors. Father stood and said, “Looks like our food’s here. I hope you two are up for some pizza. With you having a chef, your mother and I decided that eating out would be a nice break for you.” Despite having countless exquisite tastes come from the kitchen at home, I never got tired of savory pizza in all of its varieties. Well, I supposed anchovies were out. Sardines too. Most pizzas, at least, were delectable pies of pure joy which continued to please slice-after-slice. “Plus,” mother added, “I wanted to spend more time with you than in the kitchen while I have you here. We don’t get to see you nearly enough these days.” We had moved into the kitchen to eat at the table there, and I paused briefly while lifting a slice onto my plate. Looking at my parents, I told them “Yes. I’m sorry about this past month. Losing Regina was hard for me, and I didn’t handle it well at all. I’ll do my best not to be such a stranger again.” Father, who was standing by me, patted my back before grabbing a slice of his own. “We know, son.” he told me. “Regina was a very special girl. I miss,” mother said, something catching in her throat, “I miss her too.” Mother’s eyes glistened, so I sat my plate on the table and hugged her back. “I know, mother. I truly do.” I should have stopped by much sooner, but things would get better in time.